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Residents sound off on streetcar line

Lines planned for 2015 would aid U. transport to Med School, Jewelry District

Providence residents gave feedback last week on the proposed installation of a streetcar system connecting College Hill with four other neighborhoods throughout the city at a series of open houses hosted by the city of Providence and the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.

The Providence Core Connector Study held its first open house forum Sept. 21 at the Brown/RISD Hillel for College Hill residents. More forums took place later in the week in Upper South Providence and the downtown area.

The study, a joint effort by the city and RIPTA, is aiming to gauge public opinion on a proposal to install a streetcar system. The proposal arose from the Providence Metropolitan Transit Enhancement Study — completed in December 2009 — that sought to identify new ways to improve public transportation in Providence. A report issued on the study this summer issued 10 recommendations, including a recommendation for a city streetcar system.

During the College Hill forum presentation, Mark Therrien, RIPTA assistant general manager, said the agency is currently planning to connect College Hill with downtown, Upper South Providence, the Jewelry District and the area near the State House.

Therrien raised the prospect of expanding streetcar coverage beyond those five points to other areas of the city, but meeting participants expressed concern that widening coverage could detract from the goal of faster and more efficient travel.

If a streetcar system were to be installed, it would coexist with the regular RIPTA bus system, Therrien said, though some bus routes would be altered to accommodate the streetcar.

Therrien said the transportation agency is taking into account the potential impact of the study on the environment, job creation and tourism in the city.

"RIPTA is more than just buses running up and down the street," he said.

Though a modern streetcar system is the focus of the current study, another option is to provide better traditional bus service between the five targeted areas.

Amy Pettine, RIPTA special projects manager, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that, at open houses elsewhere in the city last week, community members said they were "interested in the benefits that come from technology like a streetcar, both transit and economic," but also expressed concern about the expense of installing a rail line.

According to RIPTA, the capital cost of the proposed streetcar project would be $76 million, and the annual operating cost would be $2.8 million.

The University has also played a part in planning the project. Brown has an interest in the study because of how a streetcar system might impact life on campus, said Richard Spies, executive vice president for planning and senior adviser to the president.

The University currently operates shuttles to transport students to and from campus, the Jewelry District and hospitals associated with Alpert Medical School. A RIPTA streetcar that operated in the proposed core would provide additional transportation for those students, Spies said.

The University has conducted its own surveys to gauge student opinion, but Spies said that participating with the Core Connector study "doesn't lead to an automatic support for the outcome." It remains to be seen whether such an investment would pay off, he said, but if the investment is made, private investors like real estate firms might be willing to make further investments.

The next step in the planning process is to narrow down route possibilities and submit the specifics for public review in December, Pettine wrote. The current study ends in June 2011, Therrien said, and if the initiative moves forward, a streetcar route could open downtown by 2015, according to the report issued this summer.


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